For the Spirit of Sport: Cricket’s Culture War

“Desperately, critically, we need Cricket to fight tooth and nail before it loses every scrap of what it is meant to be.”

A few months ago, a new quote began to make the rounds on basketball Twitter. It picked up from Latin American Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara’s journals, in which one December night in 1962, a year and a half on from the Bay of Pigs invasion, he would log his powerful disdain against a different foreign weapon wreaking havoc in Cuba. No, not atomic bombs pointed at Havana, not a fleet of submarines bearing in on the island, not the threat of a nuclear winter as fingers hovered above big red buttons. This weapon was one of eloquence, of sophistication, of flair, and of grace.

“In his frequent basketball matches, Fidel has started using a new move he simply calls ‘The Step,’” writes Guevara. “It is undeniably effective, yet is its goodness equally undeniable?” It is the kind of post that you see and entirely takes the wind out of you. Granted, it’s not actually real — it’s a fictionalised paragraph by a basketball criticMicah Wimmer, in a satirical post entitled “How Fidel Castro Invented the Euro Step: A Brief Oral History.” But it matters not. The imagery of Guevara riled up against Castro because of his inability to defend a basketball move is the sort of comic genius that just imprints itself on anybody who comes across the idea, and soon enough, sure enough, it became a very popular meme online.

The real kicker comes at the end of this little diary entry. In a quote that has developed into an incredible graphic, much-quoted on this corner of the internet ever since: “Yes, it leads to a basket, but at what cost to the communal spirit?” What a succinct, beautiful, moving way to capture a sentiment that encapsulates the gripes many sports fans hold against the shapes that modern sport has begun to take. As the siren-song of wealth and influence grows louder, it begins to undermine the  ‘communal spirit’ that has always been a non-negotiable promise of sport.

It is a silly little meme, sure, and I was happy to wave it off as such when I saw it being used in that context. But it’s difficult to ignore what a potent and almost heartbreaking judgement it provides regarding the way sports are played today. Inklings of it seeped in while watching the big match between Manchester City and Arsenal in the Premier League at the end of March: both teams were sitting at the top of the table, once not too long in the past seen as apostles of quick, attacking, brave football. Instead of a blockbuster, it was one of the drabbest big games of football in recent memory. Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta would set up their teams with four centre-backs each, and two defensive-minded midfielders on top to boot. No surprise, the match ended in a 0-0 draw, where a win for either team would have taken them to the top of the table.

Football’s money problem is hardly a fresh concern. Decisions made to boost the profitability and commercial success of teams and competitions often come at the cost of the ‘product’, but even looking at it from this lens is perhaps a misstep. It’s an indication that the way in which football is perceived at its highest echelons is skewed. For the longest time, the sport found its growth and its purchase at the most common denominator — the fans. That still holds true for much of the sport’s landscape, but when the kind of wholesale changes like Sky’s purchase of the English First Division and its rebranding as the Premier League come about, the common denominator is what is easiest to put at stake, to put down as collateral. One needn’t look past the boom of the Saudi Arabian Pro League becoming such a popular target for some of the world’s finest players in the previous summer: when a powerful kingdom can promise unforeseeable riches to kick ball, the fabric of what makes the sport is forced to reevaluate.

In truth, what inspired this piece was not football’s culture war, about which enough and more has been written. What is a concern, is the way in which those very sticking points that have contaminated the image of football begin to take hold of other growing sports as well, which maybe don’t hold the monolithic impassibility that football enjoys. Still in the midst of a raging IPL season, it just feels like there is something off. Growing up, the IPL represented something so special. School would end, the summer would begin, and in a wave of mangoes, empty vacation days, and metric tonnes of Cricket Attax cards, a generation of fans would tune in every evening to watch the best players in the world play for our cities, our teams. It was a true golden age, as India established itself as a veritable behemoth on the international scene in parallel. This year, it simply feels like that magic has evaporated.

The cricketing reasons feel straightforward. Entering this season, the IPL had seen two scores above 250 in any one innings. The first of these was Royal Challengers Bangalore’s famous 263 against Pune in 2013, as Chris Gayle tonked everything into the Chinnaswamy stands against a hapless bowling lineup in the country’s smallest cricket ground. The second was Lucknow SuperGiants against Punjab in Mohali last year, as blitzy innings from Kyle Mayers, Ayush Badoni, and Nicholas Pooran supplemented a Marcus Stoinis 72(40) as LSG finished on 257. This year, the number of scores in advance of 250 has risen to ten, and that is with a host of group stage games and the entirety of the playoffs still in hand. Lucknow’s 257, a scarcely believable score even last year, was matched by the Mumbai Indians in a losing effort against the Delhi Capitals. In a losing effort. They scored at over 2 runs a ball and managed to LOSE. Even these scores dwarf in comparison to Sunrisers Hyderabad’s record-setting innings of 287 against RCB, which broke the record SRH had themselves set with 277 against MI earlier in the tournament. What is going on? How is a 20-over team nearly hitting 300 runs, a score which was once considered a feat in the 50-over game?

Is this inherently a bad thing? To see records break, to see an inflation in the most exciting part of batting, a boost in power-hitting? My response to this lies more or less perfectly in line with Che Guevara’s fictional quote: yes, it leads to runs, but at what cost to the communal spirit? As with any sport, the charm and brilliance of cricket lies in the balance it provides between the two components of its craft — a balance that allows its spirit to flourish. It doesn’t have the neatness of football and tennis, with pitches and courts divided systematically into even halves with nominally even opportunity, which makes the balancing of batting with bowling a delicate and fine art that demands application and quality. This is a principle that has been hit out of the park as if it were an overpitched off-spinner bowled to Heinrich Klaasen, the big South African who is in some ways the face of this power revolution in the IPL. 

To be clear, the change in the way these sports are played definitely comes down to a pursuit of success, when seen from the perspectives of the athletes themselves. Of course Rishabh Pant is going to make use of a flat pitch and small boundaries to boost his courage and flick fast bowlers delivery express pace over his shoulder like he is playing against your average trundling uncle-ji in the park (and to be fairer to him still, he has always done that.) But the questions need to be pointed at the systems that allow  these kinds of steps to be prioritised, making a total mess of the substance that has allowed these sports to flourish for centuries. It is a tougher ask in football: if these managers decide that playing it safe against other strong teams is the quickest way to earn points, so be it, that has always been the case. But will cricket, in particular, allow the sport to slip so far out of its hands that you could take these bowlers — world class athletes, having honed the action of bending a small orb to their will to a fine art — and replace them with bowling machines, like in that old Stick Cricket game? In effect, it already feels like that is happening in this year’s IPL.

This is different to the Bazball revolution in Test Cricket, where England’s aggressive approach is a genuine, viable change-of-track tactic which has been paying dividends, and still allows for opposition to adapt and counteract. If anything, that exemplifies the best of what sports have to offer, a constant back-and-forth battle, big swings of strategic change for small shifts in competitive edge. Say what you will about Bazball and the near-masturbatory culture Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have introduced to their cricket landscape, but it does champion what change should look like. IPL batters allowed to clear their front leg and swing wildly because they know all the odds have been manufactured to shift in their favour? Not quite, and anything but.

It is a cultural and commercial question. The reason teams are happy to play this way is because it guarantees success (or close to guarantees it, as Punjab managing to chase down KKR’s 261 to fill out slots 6 and 7 in the top 10 highest scores illustrates.) The reason that governing bodies haven’t put in place the checks and balances that are supposed to prevent this sort of structural disintegration in the sport comes down to the same old enemy: profitability. Teams whacking a casual 260 on a random Tuesday might not be good for cricket at its soul, but it’s good for stakeholders, it’s good for investors, it might be good for the betting companies that line the pockets of these organisations and pack out advertising real estate to the point where you will see their logos pasted over goddamn Instagram reels

There isn’t much more to be said about the greed that the BCCI, more than most, has exemplified in the recent past. But it feels entirely different when bad decision-making for the national team is supplanted by the kind of gamesmanship (and that is certainly what it feels like at this point) that sacrifices the intrinsic nature of the sport for which they are responsible, as its richest and most powerful proprietors.

Maybe it’s just a blip along the road, a fun little aberration supercharged by the impact player rule and flat pitches and a more general shift towards all-or-nothing batting. Maybe the onus then falls on the bowlers to improve their game, for bowling coaches to come up with sharper plans that prohibit these scores hitting orbit. “As revolutionaries we must not merely pay attention to ends, but to means. I worry that this flash and pomp is not befitting of the revolutionary leader,” writes Guevara in the remnant of Wimmer’s fictional diary entry. “It serves to separate him too much from those caught in the chains of a maudlin life, marred by oppression and economic strife.” It’s also true that the IPL doesn’t owe all that much to our collective childhood memories, in its 17th season, although I very much would like them to. Cricket Attax has fallen out of circulation, the summers are becoming unforgiving, we are all becoming older and time never feels long enough. Desperately, critically, we need cricket to fight tooth and nail before it loses every scrap of what it is meant to be.

Kartikay Dutta
Kartikay Dutta
Kartikay is a literature student at Ashoka University. He loves watching, talking, and writing about all things sport, and is a contributing writer at ALMA Magazine.